Finding Joy in Preaching
by Jere Phillips
“I never take Monday as my day off; I don’t want to feel that bad on my own time.” That old joke brings a knowing smile to many preachers’ faces. They understand the anxiety leading up to the preaching event and the subtle, or not so subtle, depression commonly felt the morning after. For a week or more they had poured over Bible texts, commentaries, illustration sources, and countless books as they prepared to preach. On Sunday, they prayed up and poured out their hearts, often only to see little response among the people they desperately love.
Perhaps that’s why James Earl Massey called preaching a “burdensome joy” in his Conger Lectures on Biblical Preaching (later turned into his book: The Burdensome Joy of Preaching).1 Massey recalled Gardner C. Taylor, who referred to preaching as “the sweet torture of Sunday morning.”2 Harry Baker Adams also wrote about preaching as “The Burden and the Joy.”3 Adams described preaching as a burden because of the hard work of study and preparation required by the expectations of the people who “bring their needs, their hopes, their frustrations, and their dreams…”4At the same time, he added, preaching is full of joy because “What we do is important ….”5
The preacher’s Monday Morning Hangover sometimes results from sheer physical and spiritual exhaustion. It may also come from the realization we have to get up and start again because Sunday will be here before you know it. The people in the pews will be expecting you to hit it out of the park every week because that’s what they see the guy on TV do. Add a good dose of a schedule overloaded with committee and staff meetings, hospital visitation, funerals, weddings, counseling, and a host of other duties. Pretty soon you’re talking burnout – UNLESS, you can find the joy in it all.
Nehemiah declared, “The joy of the Lord is our strength” (Neh. 8:10). That’s true, but how can the preacher translate that truth into his weekly routine? How can we turn drudgery into delight? In the next few paragraphs, I hope you will find principles that, if practiced, may help change the purgatory of sermon preparation and delivery into a paradise of spiritual renewal.
Check your motivation.
Varied personalities are passionate about different aspects of preaching. Some ministers preach because they have Jeremiah’s “fire in their bones.” Like Paul, they sense an internal “woe” if they “preach not the gospel.” Lock them in an empty room and they’ll preach to the wallpaper. Put them in an open meadow and they’ll join Francis of Assisi in preaching to the birds. They can’t help but preach.
Other preachers are like the scholar who loves spending hours researching commentaries, exploring every option for each word study. His joy is in the discovery of truth. Having to stand in front of people can be an exercise in sharing the results of research, only to find the average person in the pew may not as concerned about the minutia of Mesopotamia.
Another type of sermonizer is the strategist. He loves the crafting of the message, employing classical rhetorical devices and modern dialogue to create a specific reaction in his hearers. Unfortunately, listeners may lack appreciation for homiletical nuances.
While each style is valued, if the act of preaching is the goal and glory of the preacher, why would he feel anything less than elation once he has preached? The reality is that God has not called us just to preach the Word; He has called us to preach His Word to people. The joy of preaching is not in the act alone. We rejoice as the Word and Spirit of God transforms the lives of people we love
We not only find joy in preaching because we love the Lord’s people, but because we love the Lord Himself. The psalmist found joy in preaching God’s righteousness in the “great congregation.” He delighted to do God’s will. As a result, he did not restrain his lips, but proclaimed God’s law among the people. (Psalm 40:8-9) While this text refers not to a typical pastor, but the king, the principle applies as we preach God’s word today.
Change your method.
While some preachers simply open the Book, point and shoot, most of us recognize the responsibility to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in studying thoroughly as we prepare to preach. If we take seriously the mandate to “rightly divide the Word of Truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), we dare not presume to stand before God’s people without investigating the biblical text.
Some ministers spend extended hours pulling book after book from their library shelves, pouring through seemingly infinite information about each verse. The exertion can be draining physically and mentally. Bible software can greatly help today’s preachers access many different sources quickly and efficiently. Many of these systems employ hyperlinks to take the student of the Word seamlessly from text to commentary to word study. We can move from source to source smoothly, drawing from each whatever helps us understand the text more completely.
However, the key to finding joy in preaching is not merely streamlining what we do in preparation, but in our basic attitude. Too often we approach sermon prep as a task. It’s something we have to do in order to develop a meaningful message. Instead of seeing sermon preparation as another item on our “to do” list, see it as an opportunity to meet with Jesus! Whether in private devotion or preparatory study, time in the Bible is time with Christ. Commune with Him as you study. Let Jesus walk with you through the Scripture and the sermon. When finished, you will find yourself refreshed in the joy of His presence.
Claim your mandate.
When Jesus began His preaching ministry, He read from Isaiah 61:1-2. The Spirit of the Lord God was upon Him, anointing him to “preach good tidings unto the meek; … to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD. . .” He had a mandate to preach the gospel and He extended that sanction to His followers – first to the disciples (Matt. 10:7), and through them to us today.
A man who is called to preach speaks not for himself, nor of himself. He is a herald, sent by the King to declare His Word (1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11). If we preach our own ideas about topics we merely believe to be of interest to the hearers, we fail this mandate and fall under the judgment of our master. Through Jeremiah, God warned the people about “prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes; they speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord….Let him who has my word speak my word faithfully” (Jer. 23:16, 28).
A preacher who finds joy in his task is one who has not chosen this role or merely volunteered along the way. Rather, he daily responds to the call of His Master and speaks God’s Word at His behest.
Joy in preaching comes from faithfully fulfilling the heavenly mandate to “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Celebrate your message
We often refer to the sermon as the “message.” People give preachers permission to speak into their lives because they believe the man of God has a genuine message from God. Embracing the best of expository preaching allows the preacher to deliver God’s Word faithfully and fully. We should not search the latest self-help books for relevant topics for post-modern parishioners. We dare not dig around the Internet to find someone else’s sermons. Heralds of God celebrate the eternally relevant Word that speaks to all generations of every culture.
Our joyous message is not only from God, but of God. In his book, The Joy of Preaching, Rod Damico asked, “How can I not speak of the God Who has been my constant companion these many years? . . . How can I not speak of this God Whose presence makes it possible for me to speak the word He has placed within my heart?”6 The true power for preaching is not the personality of the preacher, but the Holy Spirit Who reveals Christ through His Word. Participating in that proclamation is joy indeed!
Confess the mystery
The error of the east is shrouding the sacred in secrecy. This error can be observed in the mysticism of eastern religions as well as the use of icons and rituals to divert the faithful into superstition. At the same time, the error of the west is trying to master the mysteries of God with the mind. Many preachers struggle because they feel pressure to answer every question, meet every need, and solve every problem. Paul understood something about the mystery of godliness (1 Tim. 3:16). He did not try to explain every nuance of doctrine; he merely sought to proclaim God’s word faithfully.
This argument does not mean that we don’t seek diligently to understand the Scripture. Indeed, we can rely on the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth (John 16:13). We should use every tool at our disposal to make sure we deliver the Word as God intended. At the same time, we can depend on the Spirit to illuminate His Word to His people and apply it to their lives. We can also accept that some aspects of truth are beyond human comprehension. The nature of the Trinity or the dual truth of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of human beings cannot easily be explained in three points and a poem. Joy comes when we realize we don’t have to explain it; we have only to proclaim it.
Commit to your Master.
We cannot control the response to our preaching. God alone turns the hearts of hearers to Himself. Dependence on the Holy Spirit enables us to preach with freedom and joy as we surrender responsibility for the sermon into His hands. Certainly, we have the charge to prepare diligently and proclaim faithfully, but the results lie solely between the listener and the Lord.
Rest in the realization that God has promised His Word will not return unto Him “void” but will accomplish what He pleases (Isaiah 55:11). You may not see someone walking the aisle at every invitation, but that does not mean the message has not had an effect. Who knows what hopeless person has received encouragement that day? How many marriages may have been strengthened? What direction might someone have gained in making a right choice that week? How many people were brought closer to their Lord?
Commit your sermon, and its results, to the Master. Find joy in the fact that He has allowed you to be part of one of the greatest activities found in this life – to stand before God’s people empowered by God’s Spirit to proclaim God’s Word and know that He is at work in each word and every life.
1 James Earl Massey, The Burdensome Joy of Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998.
2 Ibid., 11.
3 Harry Baker Adams, Preaching: The Burden and the Joy. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1996.
4 Ibid., 2.
5 Ibid., 3.
6 Rod Damico, The Joy of Preaching: Embracing the Gift and the Promise. Totowa, NJ: Resurrection Press, 2001
Jere Phillips is Professor of Practical Theology at Mid America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee